Lawsuits Grind on in South Carolina, Fort Worth

By Kirk Petersen

In Virginia, the rector of an Anglican church that played a leading role in the schism has teamed up with the retired Episcopal diocesan bishop to lead a pilgrimage to Northern Ireland to study the art of reconciliation.

In Pittsburgh, the bishop of the Anglican diocese has attended an event hosted by the Episcopal diocese, and the two sides have reached agreement on property litigation.

Here and there around the country there are signs of American Anglicans and Episcopalians moving toward a future where there may be no more tension between them than between, say, Episcopalians and Presbyterians.

Not so much in South Carolina and Fort Worth. Litigation in both dioceses shows no sign of ending, and there were procedural developments in both cases in late August.

At stake in South Carolina is the ownership of 28 church properties whose members voted to leave the Episcopal Church (TEC) in 2012 along with Bishop Mark Lawrence, subsequently joining the new Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). In August 2017 the ownership issue was decided in favor of the TEC diocese in a highly fractured ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court.  The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, leaving it up to the trial judge to implement the decision of the South Carolina high court.

But the ACNA parishes filed a claim under the Betterments Statute, a state law that says “a party who makes good faith improvements to property they believe they own, may be compensated for the value of those improvements, if a court makes a final determination that another party is the true owner,” according to a statement on the ACNA diocesan website.

On August 28, trial Judge Edgar W. Dickson rejected a TEC motion to dismiss the betterments claim. If the betterments claim is upheld, the parties could end up litigating the value of improvements ever made on each of the 28 properties, some of which go back to colonial times.

The TEC and ACNA parties are scheduled to begin mediation in early September in an attempt to resolve the complicated issues. Previous attempts at mediation have failed.

Meanwhile, the Texas Supreme Court agreed on August 30 to hear oral arguments in December on the ACNA Forth Worth parties’ appeal of an April 2018 appeals court ruling that largely favored TEC. The ACNA diocese is headed by Bishop Jack Iker, who led a movement out of TEC in 2008.

All parties agree that title to the Fort Worth properties are held by the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth (EDFW). The catch is that both the TEC and ACNA dioceses claim the rights to that name, and both identify themselves in that way.

Because the two organizations have the same name, they have had to develop a nomenclature for referring to each other. The ACNA diocese typically refers to itself as “the Diocese” and to its adversaries as “the TEC parties.” The TEC side refers to “the loyal Episcopalians” and “the breakaway parties.”

In its appeal of the April 2018 ruling, the ACNA diocese indicated that a reconciliation between the parties is unlikely: “Plaintiffs and Defendants agree they have no relationship with each other, and no plans otherwise.”

Ronald Caldwell is a retired history professor who has posted more than 500 times since 2013 on his blog, “The Episcopal Church Schism in South Carolina.” After a July hearing on the betterments litigation, he wrote:

As I sat in that beautiful courtroom on Tuesday, a sense of sadness fell over me. There were two groups of former friends strictly divided by the center aisle. … I saw no one cross the aisle, no one speak to anyone on the other side. Dozens of people came and went speaking only to their friends, on their side. One of the original nine dioceses of the Episcopal Church lies broken and bleeding of self-inflicted wounds. This is a shame and a scandal.


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